This story is an expanded version of the 3 Questions page that appeared in the April edition of National Geographic magazine.
The first thing I said to Morgan Freeman was that it was an honor to meet him. And the first thing he said back to me was that I shouldn’t say s--- I didn’t mean. Freeman was in Los Angeles to talk about his new show, The Story of God, premiering this Sunday at 9/8c on the National Geographic Channel. I told him the show struck me as oddly meta, the character God exploring the concept God. But that was the point. Because even though Freeman has played the white-suited puller of strings in Bruce Almighty, and even though his warm-molasses voice is undeniably heavenly, Freeman has a lot of questions about how God actually works. Like where do we come from? What's our purpose? And where do we go when we die?
Freeman seemed genuinely delighted that he was allowed to visit the world's holiest (and most heavily guarded) sites to produce the show. And when we started talking, he became deeply thoughtful about his family, his spirituality, and the universe.
I think when people see the show they’ll wonder, do you have a curiosity about God and faith that you want to explore?
Well, I think I’m like most people. You grow up with God. My grandmother was studiously not religious, but a studious believer. She’d go to church because she was tired. You know how you say to children say that God is love? Well by the age of 13 I was beginning to question all that. That questioning is ongoing. When this opportunity came to really delve into it, to go find some answers, or to at least probe some different concepts, that just sounded like a very exciting thing to do.
I’ve read you have a library of religious books.
Yeah I have them all. I have the Quran, I have four or five different Bibles. If it’s about religion, I have something on it.
What about it fascinates you?
A long time ago I decided, this is what I decided, we hold things God-like in awe. You know where the word awe comes from?
Imagine you’re an early human and you’re just beginning to stand up. Now you’re a hunter-gatherer and you’re roaming around. And all of a sudden the top of a mountain blows off. You know what you say? Awe. Awe is the beginning of God. It’s the beginning of something we don’t understand.
You are one of the few people on the planet who has convincingly played God. What’s that like?
To play that role?
The role? Oh that’s fine. To play any role, that’s fun. The really good one was with Jim Carey [in Bruce Almighty]. That was fun. It’s the aftermath that gets troublesome.
People associate you with God. They say “well God is here now so can you dismiss with the rain?”
When people think of God, they see you.
Really? So when George Burns played God--
You were more convincing.
Yes. People sometimes see you as God. What do you see?
Well, I don’t think there is an image of God. I like the rays coming down from the clouds. I like seeing the Milky Way on a clear night. I like seeing 1,000 feet forward on the night of a full moon. That’s God. That is the essence of existence. You’re there with the great unknown.
What do you hope people get from the Story of God?
We live in a time where people see differences. We’re trying to show them the commonalities. There are serious commonalities.
Between the world’s major religions?
Between the world’s religions. There are three major, but there are like 8 or 9 subsidiaries [laughs]. I love that. We hear about God on TV, the Mideast crisis, during presidential debates, the name of God is evoked. I think there’s no more important time to look at our own relationship and other people’s relationship with God and try to understand it. It’s a really important time in our history.
Tell me something you learned.
One really interesting thing I didn’t know was that reincarnation is binding. You’re bound to the Earth, you’re bound to a corporal existence. You have to keep coming back and coming back until you get it right. But once you get it right, that’s it, you’re done. But, we were in Varanasi in India, the holiest city on the Ganges, and we learned that you could get a shortcut. Just go to Varanasi and die, and be cremated at that river, and that’s it, you’re done, it’s over. You don’t have to come back anymore. So you know where I’m going!
Were there any problems visiting the holiest sites around the world?
Only on one occasion, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Yes, we were kicked out.
Because of the cameras?
No because I have a big mouth. Because I used an unallowable word, which we didn’t realize was unallowable. We were in one of the tombs near where the crucifixion took place. So I used the term “myth,” and we were asked to leave post-haste. Out.
You have a line in Bruce Almighty I really like. You say that most people don’t like the light because they prefer to live in the dark. Do you think, in terms of spirituality, that’s true?
It’s a bit arrogant to use the term “most people.” But I think it’s true that a lot of people don’t like the light because they live their lives in the dark. Enlightenment is a very interesting concept, scary sometimes.
Daniel Stone is a staff writer for National Geographic. Follow him on Twitter.